“These are for you,” he said, handing me a dozen red roses and a teddy bear before leaning in to kiss me.
My first boyfriend, Danny, was standing in the doorway in full army fatigues. He was picking me up on a warm Friday evening in July to take me out to dinner and a movie. We drove a half hour to the Columbia Mall in the suburbs of Baltimore and ate at P. F. Chang’s.
It was the first time a man had properly taken me out on a date. And the first time I’d ever eaten at P. F. Chang’s, too.
After the movie, we went back to his suite at the barracks on Fort Meade and cuddled until we fell asleep. I was in a state of complete and utter bliss.
But that bliss didn’t last much longer. Danny and I broke up unexpectedly a couple of months later. I was beginning my senior year of high school and, considering that I was just 17 years old and he was 19 at the time, the two years that separated us seemed to be the force that was driving us apart.
It took me several months, a lot of searching for perspective and multiple care packages from my mom before my first heartbreak began to subside.
I’ve had a handful of great loves in my life. Danny was certainly one of them. We spent many nights talking on the phone until the sun came up. He comforted me in the wake of my father’s stroke. He was the first person I ever thought I loved.
Love is such an interesting specimen: It pervades our culture and yet it can be elusive to nail down—and get right. Over the years, I’ve learned so many wonderful lessons about what it means to truly love someone. Danny and the men who followed in his footsteps have helped me learn and grow and develop into the man I am today. In that sense, I think love only helps cultivate more love, both for the self and for others.
Below, I share 14 lessons I’ve learned about love. I hope they help you avoid the same mistakes and pitfalls I encountered. I hope they encourage you to open your heart and your mind to the possibilities that await you. I hope they help you find—and keep—the love you deserve.
1. No one else can complete you. Only you can do that.
Leasing out your self-worth to other people is a sure-fire way to end up emotionally bankrupt. It’s called self-worth for a reason. It’s imperative that you dig deep within yourself and believe in your own worthiness before you involve anyone else in the picture.
You can’t expect anyone else to fill a void inside of you. You can’t build a house on top of a foundation that’s borrowed from someone else. If they aren’t there, then you’re left with nothing. That’s what creates codependence and an unhealthy balance in a relationship.
Secure your own foundation first. Build a life that supports your happiness and it will attract the person who complements that in a healthy way. Then, the two of you can build a home for each other in your hearts. And maybe one in real life, too.
2. Attachment is not love.
Attachment and love can feel similar at times, but there are some distinct differences to note:
Attachment latches on to a partner out of fear that he may leave.
Love opens the door for the partner to leave if that’s what makes him happy.
Attachment is based upon the core belief that love is scarce, and therefore you likely won’t find it again.
Love is based upon the core belief that love is abundant, and therefore it can be found again.
Attachment is based upon the extremes of “not enough” and “too much.”
Love is based upon an equilibrium of “enough-ness”—of being “just right” as it is.
Attachment feels like a cage.
Love feels like freedom.
Learn to differentiate between the two. Your heart and sanity will thank you.
3. It takes two to tango. It only takes one to forgive.
You are bound to get bumped and bruised and maybe even a little battered in this life. But it’s up to you how long you choose to carry that baggage with you.
No matter what happened to you in your past—no matter how rough you may have had it—you must find the strength within you to forgive. You only do yourself an injustice by bearing the burden of what someone else has done. You do not get to go back and rewrite the past, but you can rewrite the future. And that starts by releasing the negative energy of the past through forgiveness.
You do not need an apology. You do not need an “I’m sorry.” You do not need anything other than the desire to not be held captive to the negativity any longer. When you’re at that point, you’re ready to forgive. When you finally forgive, you’re ready to welcome love into your heart.
4. Your relationship is a reflection of you.
The world mirrors you back at yourself. And nowhere is that more apparent than in your romantic relationships.
Those faults you see in your partner are just disowned parts of you.
Those qualities you adore in your mate are qualities you admire because of your background.
The things you look for in another are based on the things you either admire or abhor most about yourself based on your conditioning.
Your perception shapes your reality. Try to remember that what you see isn’t necessarily things as they are but rather things as you perceive them. This shift in perspective will help you open up to your partner’s point of view. And admit where you may need to heal as well. (Here’s a hint: Just follow your emotional triggers.)
5. Vulnerability is the key to deep connection.
If you really want to welcome love into your life, you need to open up your heart. And that means talking about your biggest setbacks, mistakes and heartbreaks. Truth is, we all have them—and revealing yours is a brave show of strength, not a sign of weakness.
When you lay bare your soul in this way, you will attract profound and meaningful relationships because you will transcend small talk and surface level connections.
Love can’t survive in the darkness that shields lies and secrets. But it thrives in the light of your truth. All you have to do is have the courage to share it with those you can trust. Then, watch as your relationship flourishes.
6. You are your own person before you are a partner.
If you can’t take care of yourself, how do you expect to take care of someone else? In order to be fully present in your relationship, you need to be fully present for yourself first. Taking care of Numero Uno is essential so that you do not look for your relationship to serve you in ways that you are meant to serve you.
Maintain a hobby. Invest in your core group of friends. Take care of your health. Being a good partner starts with being good to you.
In short, put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others with theirs. You can’t be there for someone if you can’t breathe.
7. Boundaries help enhance love. Walls lock love inside.
Boundaries are incredibly important for nurturing yourself and all your wonderful gifts. But don’t confuse them with walls. Here’s how they’re different:
Boundaries are transparent.
Walls are opaque.
Boundaries are healthy.
Walls are based in fear.
Walls are immovable and stubborn.
Boundaries represent possibilities.
Walls represent limitations.
Boundaries welcome the right people inside.
Walls lock everyone out.
Don’t build walls. Embrace boundaries instead.
8. Dating is a vetting process for the open and curious.
Dates are not opportunities for you to present a watered-down version of yourself in order to be well liked; dates are opportunities for you to be your authentic self and see if another person honors, respects and admires that. Try not to put so much pressure on a situation to work out and rather remain optimistic and inquisitive as you get to know the other person. You don’t want to rush into a relationship with someone before you properly know him anyway.
So, slow down. Take your time. Use dating as a means for selecting the right person, not just any person. It’s a tool that’s meant to help you, not one that’s meant to drive you up a wall.
9. Conflict resolution is critical.
Sooner or later, you and your partner will disagree on something. How the two of you navigate the discomfort can make or break your relationship. Whether you want the time to cool off and the space to do it, or you prefer to talk it out and never go to bed angry, make sure the rules of engagement are clear.
Each time you differ in opinion is a chance for the two of you to grow. But only if you do it together as a unit.
10. The Five Love Languages can help.
How do you give and receive love? That’s what Gary Chapman’s groundbreaking book, The Five Love Languages, aims to answer. In the book, Chapman explains that there are five fundamental ways you can express and interpret love. They are as follows:
Words of affirmation: Building the other person up through compliments and other verbal reminders.
Quality time: Giving someone your undivided attention and spending time with that person.
Physical touch: Demonstrating that you care through varying degrees of physical intimacy.
Acts of service: Doing something on behalf of the other person that you know they’ll appreciate.
Gifts: Whether big or small, buying something thoughtful for the other person.
Everyone gives and receives love in a unique blend of these five “languages.” You can even have a primary language and a secondary language. And you may give love in different ways than you tend to appreciate receiving it. When you actively and honestly speak someone else’s love languages, it draws the two of you closer together. And when you seldom and sparingly speak someone’s love languages, it pushes the two of you apart.
Looking at your personal and professional relationships through this framework can help you better understand why you may gravitate to some people and drift away from others. Whenever you find yourself struggling to connect with someone else, think about how you may potentially be better able to communicate with her via her preferred love languages, which may, in fact, differ from yours.
We all know that communication is key to making a relationship work. Make sure you’re speaking and listening in the right way.
11. You know your relationship best.
Everyone has experienced love in one form or another. And that’s a beautiful thing. But you and your significant other are the only ones actually in your relationship. Ultimately, the two of you know what’s best for your courtship. Feel free to solicit advice from family and friends as needed, but always take it with a grain of salt because they aren’t in a romantic partnership with you and your beau.
Use this question as a filter for any advice you receive: Is this truly what will work best for us? If the answer is yes, then feel free to proceed. If you’re unsure or the answer is no, then move along your merry way.
12. Being single is not a curse.
Use your time on your own to get to know—and love—yourself more deeply, not to wallow in the fact that you’re single. Then, when you meet the right person, you’ll be ready to embrace him with open arms instead of wasting time worrying about whether or not you’re worthy.
True love does not create inner peace. It amplifies the peace already within you so that you may rise together as one. Focus on your inner peace first while you have the time. In this regard, being single is a blessing and an opportunity.
So, go and seize it.
13. Try not to linger on the past.
Your previous experiences helped you sharpen your skills in order to grow more fully into who you really are. But you are not defined by those experiences. It does not do well to dwell on the past because what is done is done. It’s better to keep your focus on the future so you can write a better ending than the one you may have imagined while looking backward.
So, let go. Move forward. Have gratitude for how far you’ve come. After all, you are a force of love. And that love is constantly unfolding in the present, not the past.
14. Love is in the details.
Love is a hug after a hard day at work. Love is reaching for your partner’s hand when he’s struggling to find the words. Love is a kiss on the forehead in the backseat of a cab. Love is being held when you’re crying. Love is “we’ve got this.” Love is the thoughtful text out of the blue. Love is flowers for no reason. Love is in all of the everyday, mundane moments just as much as it is in the big, celebratory ones.
John Green said it best in The Fault in Our Stars: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
Try your best to take it all in. Slowly, and then all at once.